People with high emotional intelligence seem to make better decisions than almost everyone else. How do they do it?

There's a simple answer. But explaining it requires us to take a 250-word narrative detour to prove the point. 

I hope you'll bear with me on this, because it's very useful, and because after many years of both writing for Inc.com and educating myself about emotional intelligence, I've learned to take lessons where I find them. 

I found this one in an unlikely place: by interviewing the people in charge of franchise selection at Chick-fil-A

Yes, Chick-fil-A: The fast-food chicken restaurant chain with delicious sandwiches (my opinion), a never-open-on-Sunday policy (their choice) -- and, as it happens, one of the strangest problems in American business.

Why do you want to own a Chick-fil-A?

The problem? Every year, Chick-fil-A gets about 60,000 initial applications for franchises, but they only plan to open between 75 and 80 restaurants. 

This leaves them with roughly a .13 percent acceptance rate, and trying to find needles in haystacks and diamonds in the rough and whatever other clichés you'd like to use to paint the picture.

To put things in context, by the numbers, it's harder to get a Chick-fil-A franchise than it is to get into Harvard University (3.2 percent acceptance rate) or to become a U.S. Navy SEAL (1.5 percent success rate).

In fact, it's this so-absurdly-selective-it's-funny level of competition that led me to study the company a few years back. 

The reasons why so many people apply for Chick-fil-A franchises would take up a whole other article. (Actually, I wrote that article back in 2019.) The short version is that the franchise fee is very low, and the annual income can reportedly be pretty high. 

Anyway, what people with high emotional intelligence take away from this culinary, entrepreneurial diversion has to do with one of the questions Chick-fil-A uses to narrow down its enormous pool of applicants at every stage.

As Maureen Donahue, Chick-fil-A's executive director of franchisee selection, told me a few years ago, they ask this one over and over and over:

"Why do you want to own a Chick-fil-A franchise restaurant?"

More and more profound

See what I mean? Simple -- but not necessarily easy.

"There are all kinds of layers that we can extract from that kind of a question," Donahue told me. "We're always curious what they come to the table with, but definitely how the responses shift and mature. It actually becomes more profound in most cases, as they respond later in the selection process."

Now, do people at Chick-fil-A ever mention the phrase, "emotional intelligence?" 

I have no idea. 

But, with all due respect to everyone who runs a Chick-fil-A -- a difficult job that I would be absolutely horrible at, I am sure -- I marvel at the fact that the most intense peppering of "why do you want to do this?" questions I've encountered in years of studying business, entrepreneurship, and emotional intelligence, came in the context of selecting people to run fast-food franchises.

I guess if you want to solve a problem, sometimes it helps to study entities whose very survival depends on solving that problem. 

Anyway, since I found this technique by learning about Chick-fil-A, I call it the Chick-fil-A Rule. And I think people with high emotional intelligence will recognize what it does: 

  • First, it identifies the vast majority of people whose motivations are unlikely to make them successful, and who should probably no longer be considered.
  • Second, it leaves a much smaller group: those who are motivated to apply because they possess the very unusual combination of attributes, skills, and interests that past experience suggests might actually make them successful. 

Every big decision

So tell me: Why don't people use this questioning strategy before making any big decision in life? Well in fact, no matter what they call it, people with high emotional intelligence almost certainly do use a version of it.

Truly, it applies everywhere: career decisions, business choices, personal relationships -- basically every big decision. Imagine forcing yourself to answer over and over:

  • Why do you want to do whatever it is that you're considering doing?
  • Do you really and truly want to do it for a good, sustainable reason that is likely to position you for success?
  • Or are you giving into emotions like (for example) lethargy: choosing this path because it's easier than questioning your motivation.
  • Are you possibly doing it because of guilt? Perhaps choosing this course of action because it lines up with other people's expectations for you? 
  • Are you doing it because of inertia? Perhaps you have so many sunk costs already that admitting you need to pivot carries emotional baggage?
  • Or perhaps -- and the biggest pitfall, I think -- is it possible you're doing it out of fear: a fear of the questions you'd have to ask next if you decided not to do it?

Track the answers

Good questions. In fairness, if I'd forced myself to answer them truthfully at earlier stages of life, there are a few decisions I might have made differently.

Remember, however, that at Chick-fil-A, as I understand it, it's really a three-part, repeated process:

  1. They ask the person making the application to consider the question. 
  2. They force him or her to articulate it repeatedly. 
  3. Then, they track the answers over time, looking for changes and growth. 

People with high emotional intelligence recognize that these would all be equally important parts of the process, and also that they could take many forms, as adapted. 

  • Practically speaking, maybe it means setting up conversations with trusted confidants, who will question you and help you pick apart your answers as you explore big decisions. 
  • If that's not comfortable or practical, maybe it means answering the "why" questions over and over by journaling, and then looking back at how your "earlier self" answered.
  • Maybe it also means asking other people who've made similar decisions what motivated them, and examining whether your reasons for wanting to make similar choices are also similar.

Asking the "why" question is important. Asking it repeatedly is important. And studying the answers and playing devil's advocate is important too.

An especially important rule

Look, if a single person reads this article and thinks harder about whether to borrow money for graduate school (timely example), or considers whether or not to pursue a career primarily because his or her parents or mentors expect it -- or for that matter, really forces themselves to think hard about whether the relationship they're in is right for them (sorry if that hits close to home), then I'll feel like I've done my job.

Over the years, most of the emotional intelligence rules I've shared here on Inc.com focus on the intersection between your emotions, other people's emotions, and the objective truth -- leveraging all of them to improve the odds you'll achieve your goals. 

But this one really is more personal, and perhaps more important.

The Chick-fil-A Rule is about guarding against your own emotions, and defending against how they can lead you astray to make less-than-optimal decisions -- often without realizing until it's too late.

As I write in my free e-book, 9 Smart Habits of People With Very High Emotional Intelligence, most people love having choices, but they don't actually like making decisions.

And that's just it. The Chick-fil-A Rule is about making better decisions. It's simple, but it's very rarely easy.

And maybe that's why it works.